How to recover after a workout: 8 proven strategies
Getting into a good workout routine feels amazing, but the sore muscles that follow can make consistency a challenge. Proper recovery after a workout is key to alleviating sore muscles and getting your body back to a place where it’s ready for more exercise.
In this article, we’ll discuss all things related to post-workout recovery, why it’s important, how to speed up the recovery process, and our top recovery strategies to get you there.
When you work out, your body responds with various physiological processes that enable you to exert energy and force for movement. For example, your heart rate increases with aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which elevates blood flow and your body’s core temperature. This results in sweat to help regulate your body temperature. Your muscles also generate lactic acid as a by-product of intense exercise. During cardiovascular exercise or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), these effects are elevated.
With resistance training, you still experience these effects but some to a lesser extent (e.g. your heart rate won’t elevate as high). While lifting weights, your muscles lengthen and contract in order to perform the movement. These eccentric and concentric movements result in microscopic tears to the muscle fibers. These tears are a natural part of working out, and they eventually cause inflammation, which results in achy muscles 24 to 36 hours later. This is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS for short).
As you complete a workout, your heart rate returns to its usual resting rate and blood flow slows back down. After an intense cardio or HIIT session, your body will be depleted of water and salt due to sweating during your workout. Following a workout, your body and muscles naturally recover as they rebuild the muscle tissue after exertion.
After a weight training session, the microscopic damage that occurred in your muscles during the workout is repaired through a process called protein synthesis, which leads to stronger muscles over time.
Muscle recovery is important because continuous recruitment of muscles without rest can lead to an increased risk of injury.
Through practices like rest, hydration, and proper nutrition, protein synthesis is most effective after a strenuous workout.
Cooling down, stretching, hydrating, and eating foods that contain protein, fat, and carbohydrates are some of the best things you can do to help your body after a workout. We’ve included a full list of post-workout recovery tools below.
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do to help your muscles recover faster. A massage, foam rolling, and cold immersion therapy are also effective methods of alleviating sore muscles. Combined with stretching, hydration, and proper nutrition, you can improve your muscle’s recovery rate with a holistic approach.
The best post-workout recovery is one that you’ll actually do. Set realistic recovery goals and choose a recovery plan that you enjoy. For example, if you hate swimming, don’t plan to swim as part of your workout recovery. Instead, plan to go for a walk, take a yoga class, or do some light stretching. Yoga is especially beneficial for runners and should be part of any race or distance training, such as a 5k training program.
In terms of nutrients or supplements, you’ll want to replenish electrolytes, fluids, protein, and glycogen reserves. Drink plenty of water with an electrolyte supplement, and eat a meal with carbohydrates and protein (such as brown rice with white fish or tofu) to replenish glycogen stores and aid in muscle recovery.
If you choose a post-workout recovery supplement, be sure it’s third-party verified and contains a mixture of carbohydrates, protein, and electrolytes like sodium.
However you choose to recover, just remember that your exercise recovery doesn’t have to be strenuous; you just have to move your body, which increases blood flow to your muscles. The key is to recover with light activity that you’ll be able to do and actually enjoy.
Get exclusive insights into the world of workout recovery with lululemon Studio’s newsletter.
Yes, you can work out with sore muscles; however, you likely won’t be setting any personal bests (nor should you be trying to) while your muscles are fatigued. Sore muscles are your body’s way of telling you it needs time to rest and recover. When your muscles are sore, it’s best to do light activity instead of going full steam ahead with another hard workout.
The best workouts to do when your muscles are sore include:
Depending on which muscles are sore, you might be able to do a full-on workout the next day as long as you focus on different muscle groups. For example, if you did a really intense upper-body workout one day, you can do an equally intense lower-body workout the next day. This type of split gives each muscle group the proper recovery time while being able to maintain a consistent workout routine.
The best way to recover after a workout includes properly cooling down, hydrating, eating the right foods, getting a good night’s sleep, and other beneficial tactics, outlined below.
Here’s the complete list of post-workout strategies to aid in recovery:
Giving your body time after a workout to cool down allows blood to return to your heart from your muscles and promotes the removal of metabolic byproducts from the workout, such as lactic acid. Cool downs help reduce the chance of DOMS after exercise and better prepare your muscles for your next workout. Stretching is one of the most common (and effective) practices to cool down after a workout.
Active release through foam rolling or massages provide temporary relief of sore muscles through a process called myofascial release. When the fascia (connective tissue) of sore muscles receives external pressure, it helps to release tension that was created in the muscles during a workout.
Since most people don’t have access to a massage therapist or physical therapist immediately after every workout to massage their sore muscles, foam rolling is a fantastic way to alleviate muscle tension and reduce muscle soreness. All you need is a foam roller and a yoga mat to foam roll from home.
<ProductCardBlock size="2" />
When you work out, you increase your core body temperature. As a way of releasing heat to maintain an optimal body temperature, your body produces sweat. Those beads of sweat contain mostly water (with some salt and fat mixed in). Because you’re technically losing water and salt during exercise, you need to replenish what was lost in order to recover properly and have your body systems function optimally.
Hydrating with water and electrolytes during and after a workout is your best approach to replenishing what was lost through a tough workout.
The saying “food is fuel” applies to post-workout recovery as well. Not only does food fuel your body and your workouts, but it also fuels the recovery of your muscles after exercise.
The top three foods you need to eat after a workout are:
Because exercise naturally triggers the breakdown of muscle protein, protein is the most important food to consume post-workout. Eating protein post-workout helps rebuild the proteins that were broken down during exercise.
Protein gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins and the building blocks required to build new muscle tissue.
Lean protein such as lean white fish, lean ground beef, egg whites, Greek or skyr yogurt, and tofu are just some examples of the types of protein that can aid in your recovery post-workout.
If you’re fairly active, aim for 30% of your diet to come from protein. If you don’t track your calories, a general rule of thumb to follow is to consume 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight, depending on your activity level.
Fats have been proven to promote muscle growth after a workout. Aim for healthy fats such as avocado, cheese, nuts, and seeds. Healthy fats can also be found in some proteins, including fish and whole eggs.
Keep your healthy fat intake under 20 grams during your post-workout meal.
Because your body’s glycogen stores are used as fuel during exercise, consuming carbohydrates after your workout helps to replenish them. Aerobic exercise uses more glycogen than weight training, so the amount of carbs you consume post-exercise depends on the exercise itself.
Depending on your fitness goals and activity level, your carb intake may vary from 20-30% of your diet to 50-60%. As a general rule of thumb, shoot for about 45% of your diet to come from carbohydrate sources. Complex carbs such as beans, oatmeal, quinoa, barley, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are best because they’re high in fiber and digest slowly.
Pro tip: The combination of protein and carbohydrates after exercise maximizes protein and glycogen synthesis (muscular repair).
If you’ve ever heard of the acronym R.I.C.E. after an injury (rest, ice, compression, and elevation), it’s on to something when it comes to compression—and it can be applied to your post-workout recovery as well.
Wearing compression garments such as tights, shorts, knee sleeves, calf sleeves, shirts, and socks after working out can provide significant relief from sore muscles. They’ve been proven to reduce swelling and muscle fatigue and can speed up the process of muscle tissue recovery.
New technology like compression boots, at some gyms and studios or doctor and physiotherapy offices, also help to increase blood flow and circulations to leg muscles while reducing metabolic waste much faster than garments like socks. Another benefit? They feel incredible.
There are many benefits to cold water immersion, like boosting your immune system, elevating energy levels, activating your parasympathetic nervous system, and more. Another benefit is that it can alleviate sore and tired muscles.
When you add cold temperature to your muscles, it constricts your blood vessels, which slows down blood flow and relieves soreness from swelling. This is one of the best forms of passive recovery because it takes very little effort (but sometimes a lot of willpower).
If you can’t submerge yourself in cold or cool water, consider using an ice pack on the muscles you worked the hardest during your workout. This will have a similar effect.
Ah, sleep. The most passive form of recovery of all time. Although it’s nearly effortless, sleeping is one of the most important steps in recovering after a workout. When you sleep, your muscles receive an increase in blood flow which brings oxygen and nutrients to help repair the muscle fibers that were damaged during your workout and regenerate the muscle cells through protein synthesis with a pinch of growth hormones that are released during REM.
We know that the idea of more exercise after exercise might not sound like the solution to sore muscles to some people. In a way, it sounds like fighting fire with fire. But on days following an intense workout, recovery through light activity is one of the best ways to alleviate sore muscles. This is known as active recovery.
Active recovery can be done through light activities such as yoga, stretching, walking, or other light aerobic exercise such as swimming. It helps to prevent lactic acid build-up, remove toxins, increase circulation, and alleviate sore muscles.
After a Tough Workout, Recover with lululemon Studio
Find the perfect active recovery activity, powered by lululemon Studio. We have thousands of classes to choose from, including yoga, Pilates, stretching, foam rolling, and more. Filter by fitness level, available time, equipment used, injury modifications, and more. You can attend classes live or stream them later on-demand.
With lululemon Studio, there’s something for everyone, for every recovery day. Start a free 30-day trial with the lululemon Studio App to get a first-hand experience of how it works.
Recover after a workout with lululemon Studio and say goodbye to sore muscles.
Start free 30-day app trial